In a country already known for its isolation and dazzling nature, the Westman Islands (Vestmannaeyjar) still manage to feel especially far-flung. The archipelago shines bright under its green summer cloak, while grey seabirds called fulmars twirl and dance effortlessly through the gale, some of them soaring right alongside the ferry, which journeys daily from Landeyjahöfn to Heimaey, the largest island and home to the Westmans’ only town.
On the final approach to the harbour, the bright greens contrast starkly with the vibrant coppery and tawny browns of the cliffs flanking the harbour. My travel companion, Grapevine Photographer Art Bicnick has been to Heimaey numerous times and puts it quite aptly: “When the sun is out here, it looks like somewhere in the Caribbean.”
Lunch & learning
After the early morning, two-hour drive, and forty-minute ferry ride to reach Heimaey, a good, substantial lunch is in order. Enter Gott. One of the Islands’ best-known eateries, its owners make all sauces, stews, soups, bread, and cakes on site from local ingredients with great care. The cauliflower burger makes for a filling, but refreshing lunch, stuffed with a mixture of cauliflower, avocado, quinoa, and tomatoes, held together with fluffy mashed sweet potatoes and served with a side of small potatoes baked to absolute perfection.
With body and mind reenergized, it’s off to the Sagnheimar Folk Museum, which features exhibits on many surprising and peculiar episodes of the Islands’ history, for example, the importance of the annual festival, its 1627 invasion by Ottoman pirates, its numerous inhabitants who converted to Mormonism and emigrated to Utah, puffin hunting traditions of yore (now largely abandoned), the 1973 eruption that saw the evacuation of all islanders for several months, and the numerous locals who represented Iceland in the 1936 Olympics. Museum curator Hörður Baldvinsson gestures to a notebook on the wall belonging to one of the athletes filled with handwritten notes on its pages. “[He] was friends with Jesse Owens, who left him a note in this memory book of his,” he explains. “We got it from his family.”
Puffins & plant-based
After having amply experienced the island’s gastronomy and history, it’s time for some nature as a digestif. This little peninsula of Stórhöfði winds outward from Heimaey’s southern tip in a sinuous semicircle, and is home to vibrant seabird colonies. Fulmars, kittiwakes, gannets, guillemots, Iceland gulls, and gannets all nest in great numbers here, but of course the Atlantic puffins, whose largest colony in the world can be found on this island, are the stars of the show. They flutter swiftly in all directions, flashes of color propelling themselves with continuous beats of their long, skinny wings, ferrying catches of eels in their dazzlingly multicolored bills back and forth to their burrows to feed their young, who according to Hörður, will probably be fledging in the next week or so.
While the puffins relish their catch, we instead opt for mid-afternoon drinks at the Brother’s Brewery. A wide selection of beers is on offer, with something on the menu for all tastes, from fruity IPAs to hearty lagers. One of the most notable drinks on the menu is the Óskar imperial stout, a strong brew with a hint of almond that gives it an almost coffee-like taste, the latest in a long-running series of annual house brews named after local sailors.
The day ends with dinner at Éta, a burger restaurant newly opened by the owner of Slippurinn just across the street. Boasting a crisply cooked bean patty topped with generous quantities of pickled onions, served alongside cauliflower buffalo wings cooked to perfection, the vegan burger combo makes for a satisfying, filling, and delicious end to the day.
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